Work by a Waimānalo group gathers limu and community
Neither pounding rain nor relentless ads for unbeatable holiday deals at the mall can keep dozens of intrepid volunteers from heeding a call to labor on behalf of limu restoration. This is the plan for the November monthly workday hosted by the Waimānalo Limu Hui. Shortly after sunrise, members of the fledgling community action group arrived at Kaiona Beach Park and put up two spacious tents. Not long afterward, friends and strangers started streaming in to help “restore limu to its previous abundance in Waimānalo,” as the Hui’s website puts it.
The job begins with the rather messy making of a so-called “limu lei.” This is done with dripping wet cords of raffia and clumps of limu that have been cultivated in a lab for restoration purposes only, so as not to reduce the natural source any further. The hope is that spores on the seaweed surfaces will spawn when volunteers get around to submerging their lei in the ocean later today. Meanwhile, a core of Hui members circle about, talking story, and dropping educational tidbits about the seaweed that is the star of today’s show. “Like any plant, you can’t just take it and expect it to grow back,” says Hui Vice-President Kaleo Puana, adding that as a boy he learned from his grandmother, who gathered only what was needed. “It helped she was under five feet tall and good with a cane knife. She would cut and cut, but never touch the roots!” he says animatedly.
Overharvesting is just one factor possibly driving the depletion of Hawai‘i seaweed. There are newer and ever more complex problems linked to limu decline, including shoreline development, toxic runoff from land, and even climate change. Keeping limu healthy is not going to be easy but it’s important. The species in everyone’s hands today, Manauea liloa (Gracilaria coronopiolia), is an edible limu, appreciated for spicing up the traditional Hawaiian diet. Of several hundred seaweed species in Hawaiian coastal waters, many are known in traditional lä‘au lapa‘au to have healing properties. Moreover, whether from science or traditional knowledge, limu’s critical role is made clear: it is the food supply that numerous marine organisms depend on for survival.
Limu loss is a serious matter but it is with the playfulness of a club deejay urging people onto the dance floor that the Hui’s Kaleo Puana announces the moment to wade into the water and locate a spot to anchor those limu lei that have been fitted around sizeable rocks. Anyone not interested in the heavy lifting is welcome to come talk story in the snack tent. “It’s family-style. Māmaki tea, potato salad…but not the family recipe for beef stew today. We’re saving that for next month. That’s your incentive to return,” he jokes.
So many do return, sometimes swelling attendance into the hundreds and with plenty of shared goodwill, exceeding expectations set by Hui members when they began the scheduled workdays one year ago. “Maybe this is not only about limu. The takeaway is about natural resource management done the cultural way. It’s more proactive than reactive,” says Waimānalo Limu Hui President Ikaika Rogerson.
The workdays have brought in a strong showing of support from students and teachers in Native Hawaiian-focused school programs, who apply what they learn from Hui events to environmental projects in their own communities. “I think this tells us that the Hawaiian community, in general, is looking for something positive to be part of,” Rogerson adds.
Like other Hui members, Rogerson grew up in Waimānalo Homesteads, making the waters of the bay an important part of his life. As a canoe paddler, he took pride in the health of the ocean and noticed when something was amiss. But the decline of the area’s limu had already happened by the time he and his peer group were coming of age, sending elders to other parts of the island for gathering grounds. The situation might still be off the radar were it not for Luana Albinio. The kupuna is old enough to have vivid memories of playing amid a bounteous seaweed supply harvested from Waimānalo shallows by the adults in a homestead household where the many uses of plants sparked her lifelong fascination with limu. She is off to a conference in Aotearoa today, but many regulars present at the workday are grateful for her fierce insistence that convinced a Waimānalo community non-profit to take up her idea for an organized effort at limu restoration so that future generations wouldn’t miss out on what she enjoyed. Thus the Hui formed in 2017.
Since then, a growing response has also meant a growing mission for the Hui, as more people get inspired by the workday experience. One striking example of this is the Hui’s undertaking of a project to restore a nearby turtle pond, built in antiquity probably at the behest of an ali‘i. Workday volunteers found walls of the pond were an ideal place for wedging in those spore-laden limu lei, but were quick to notice their crumbling condition. After hearing out concerns, Hui members now host quarterly rock wall renovation days.
The question of how the actual limu is benefitting from this flurry of human help remains open-ended for now. The road ahead requires commitment and patience. “When I first met with the Limu Hui, I told them if you expect immediate results, then don’t even start,” says Wally Ito, who learned limu planting from his widely recognized mentor Uncle Henry Chang Wo. Now he compliments the Hui for using an approach that has “united the community in a common effort.”
Just after the final pule of the workday takes place, someone mentions that seven-year-old Maya Koli‘i wants to share her thoughts on what she has experienced. She smiles broadly. “I took out a rock that will help the fish to live. This place feels like home to me now,” she says.
For the 2019 schedule of limu planting events or for information about limu restoration or the Waimānalo Limu Hui, go to waimanalolimuhui.org, or connect with the group on Facebook or @WaimanaloLimuHui.